Keep churches nonpartisan

THE varied voices of the religious community have been almost inaudible in this year's presidential campaign. And this is all to the good. Not that religion and religious values don't have a prominent place in the public square. They do, but as stewards of values rather than barkers of partisanship.

In the past, there has been counterproductive debate over which candidate is more committed to deific concerns. Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, for instance, dueled verbally over being ``reborn'' Christians. Both claimed indirect anointment in this area.

Today, unlike the past, there is little confrontation between the Jewish and Protestant left and the Christian and Roman Catholic right, at least in terms of the campaign.

The bid by religious fundamentalist Pat Robertson for a place on the Republican ticket fizzled early. And Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority has been remarkably quiet. Some analysts say that as long as presidential candidates acknowledge a belief in God - and don't volunteer much more along ecumenical lines - the majority of voters will accept them.

The implication is that the American public wants candidates who are religious but not religious candidates, much less zealots. This would appear to be a balanced and enlightened view in a nation that embraces a wide diversity of theological ideas and practices.

Interestingly, the majority of voters may not even know the church affiliations of the presidential candidates. For the record, George Bush is an Episcopalian and Michael Dukakis is Greek Orthodox. Both Dan Quayle and Lloyd Bentsen are Presbyterians.

If there is a religious issue this year, it is more in terms of what is proper - and legal - political activity for church groups.

The Internal Revenue Service has a clear code in this area for tax-exempt organizations, including churches. It holds that such groups must not actively participate in any campaign in behalf of any candidate for public office.

Oliver Thomas, general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, points out that religious organizations can avoid jeopardizing their tax-exempt status by refraining from direct or indirect endorsement of candidates for public office; financial or other support to a candidate; distributing or displaying campaign literature on church premises; or organizing, establishing, or supporting a political-action committee.

Does this mean that churches must purge themselves of politics? By no means.

Thomas says that there are a number of ``legitimate voter education'' activities that churches may conduct without endangering their tax-exempt status. Among them, they may distribute the voting records of legislators or members of Congress; poll candidates for office on a wide range of political and social issues; and sponsor nonpartisan public forums, debates, and lectures allowing all candidates to state their views.

As might be expected, possible violations of the code have been hotly disputed - sometimes in the courts.

In a case that reached the United States Supreme Court last term, a national pro-choice group challenged the tax-exempt status of the Catholic Church, alleging that the latter used tax-deductible contributions illegally to support political candidates who oppose abortion.

Earlier a federal judge in New York had assessed fines of $50,000 a day against two major governing bodies of the church for defying a subpoena in which the plaintiffs sought documents concerning the church's internal affairs and anti-abortion activities.

The Supreme Court sidestepped the major issues in this case, but said that a challenge of the plaintiffs' legal standing had to be determined before the suit itself was resolved. An appellate court is now considering this issue.

Earlier court rulings in other cases have established that the IRS is not in violation of the First Amendment protections for religious freedom by revoking tax exemptions of churches that directly support political candidates and causes.

A Thursday column

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